Not enough American students are showing interest in studying for degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, but what experts are more shocked by is the fact that colleges are throwing out the students who are interested.
Nearly half of all students who begin studying for a STEM degree switch majors, according to several studies. "Weed-out" classes, curve grading and a lack of faculty involvement are to blame, experts said at a Bayer Corporation forum on STEM in higher education in Washington Wednesday.
"We need to wash out the 'weed-them-out orientation' in the classroom," says Mary Fox, co-director at the Center for Study of Women, Science and Technology at Georgia Tech. "That is not a hospitable climate for students, we have to teach students to move along rather than have them sink or swim."
Many veteran STEM professors believe science should be hard, and the course work isn't something every student can do. For them, difficult freshman-year classes separate the cream of the crop.
But in a country where more scientists are desperately needed, that culture needs to change, says Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Hrabowski was named as one of TIME Magazine's 100 most influential people earlier this week for the University's success in graduating minority students in STEM.
"Some people believe only a couple people should make it in science and engineering," he says. "The question is—will an institution say there's something wrong with us if we're admitting these students and they're not making it? We have a moral responsibility—if we admit these students in [STEM], we have a responsibility to do much more."
Many higher education faculty members will blame K-12 education for not correctly preparing students for college—more than a third of college freshmen need to take remedial classes—but that's the wrong approach to take.
"A lot of people will say [unprepared freshmen] is the problem of the high schools," says David Seybert, dean of the Bayer School for Natural and Environmental Sciences as Duquesne University. "But we have to be part of that solution."
Hrabowski says that beyond being more nurturing, the tradition of grading science classes on a curve makes them more contentious. Those classes, especially freshman-level classes, should be more collaborative and have more group projects.
"When you grave by the curve, what happens is people don't work together collaboratively," he says. "It stops people from working together and it's making science much more cutthroat."